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dave obee Centenarians win, researchers lose

By Dave Obee

I will admit off the top that I have a personal bias when the topic is family history research. I've been researching my roots for years.

Those roots go back more than a century in British Columbia, to the day in 1890 when my great-great-grandfather John Montgomery decided that Langley would make a nicer home than rural Manitoba, primarily because Langley was a long way from my great-great-grandmother. But that's getting away from the matter at hand.

One major resource for my research has been the B.C. Archives, thanks to the wealth of information available there. That building on Belleville has hundreds of documents pertaining to my family, everything from death certificates to wills to land records to immigration records and more.

For the past seven years, British Columbia has been leading the nation, if not the entire world, with its commitment to making vital statistics records available. The B.C. Archives launched an online index of deaths, marriages and births in 1997. Death records were made available after 20 years, marriage records after 75 and birth records after 100.

No other jurisdiction has been able to match British Columbia's effort. When it comes to using the Internet to make government records more accessible, this province leads the pack.

That drive down the information highway hit a speed bump last week with the passage of Bill 43, the Vital Statistics Amendment Act. The act cleans up a variety of issues pertaining to birth and death registrations, particularly dealing with adoptions, and tightens the rules about who can or cannot get a copy of record. In these security-conscious times, that makes sense, because it reduces the opportunities for fraud.

The bill also, however, adds 20 years to the time it will take for birth registrations to be opened for research. Rather than waiting 100 years for unrestricted access, we'll have to wait 120.

If we want birth certificates that are less than 120 years old, we'll need to prove that a person has been dead for at least 20 years -- something that can be next to impossible to do. Consider, for instance, being told that a relative left B.C. and died "somewhere in the States" in the 1930s.

Even if we can prove the person is dead, it will be more expensive to get a copy of the birth certificate. We'll have to go through the vital statistics agency, at a cost of $50. Without this change, we would be able to make a copy for 40 cents at the B.C. Archives. That's an increase of -- wait for it -- 12,400 per cent.

As frustrating as the legislation is, the thinking behind it is understandable. Canadians are becoming more and more concerned about privacy, so governments are getting stingier with the information that they're making available.

As Health Services Minister Colin Hansen said in the legislature, there were 520 British Columbians above the age of 100 in 2003. That's up from 465 in 2001.

Odds are, about half of the 520 centenarians were born here, which means that personal information on about 260 living British Columbians was available through the archives.

"These individuals who are living past 100 deserve the same kind of protections of their birth certificates that anybody else in this province does," Hansen said.

And he warns that things will probably get worse for genealogists.

"The age group that is growing faster in percentage terms than any other age group are those British Columbians over the age of 90," he said.

"I have no doubt that even as we change this provision in the Vital Statistics Act from 100 years to 120 years, there will be a day in the future when some other group of legislators will be standing in this house to amend this legislation to protect those British Columbians living beyond 120 years of age."

It's too bad that the government rushed this bill through without consulting the genealogical and historical communities, the groups that will be most affected by this change. It would have been nice to find a balance between our right to know our family's history and the right to privacy that centenarians deserve.

The government could soften the blow by being gentle with the introduction of the new rules. It should not pull back the records from 1903 and earlier. These records are already available through the B.C. Archives, the Victoria Genealogical Society, several other libraries throughout the province, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Leave them there.

And, when researchers prove they have a right to a birth record that's more than 100 years old, it would be nice to see them get a cut rate on the price, taking away the sting of that 12,400-per-cent price increase.

It should also be noted that much of this "confidential" information is already available to researchers, if they know where to look. Many hospitals provided a list of all births to the local newspapers, which are on microfilm at the B.C. Archives.

When it comes to the official documents, however, it's going to be much tougher and much more expensive to get at the information.

Privacy concerns or not, that's bound to annoy the thousands of British Columbians who are researching their family history.

Dave Obee is editorial page editor of the Times Colonist newspaper in Victoria, B.C. This column appeared in the Times Colonist on Sunday, May 23, 2004.

Reprinted courtesy the Times Colonist

Posted May 25, 2004


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